Friday, 30 November 2012

Movie Review: The Fortune Cookie (1966)

A sharp comedy about fun with a false personal injury claim, The Fortune Cookie is a tasty treat. The first teaming of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau provides a harmonious dose of passive do-goodness and aggressive scheming, paving the way for the duo to collaborate for three more decades.

While covering a Cleveland Browns game, mild-mannered television cameraman Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is accidentally toppled over on the sidelines by the Browns' star kick returner Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich). Harry is shaken-up but otherwise not seriously hurt, until his brother-in-law lawyer Willie Gingrich (Matthau) gets to him at the hospital. Willie convinces Harry to pretend to be suffering from a serious back injury, and he launches a million dollar lawsuit against the Browns, the stadium, and anyone else remotely related to the incident, to recover damages.

Harry plays along, but he is not really interested in the money. He hopes that his fake injury will trigger a reconciliation with his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West), who has left him for another man. Harry is still madly in love with Sandy, and hopes that she will return to care for him. Meanwhile, the insurance company is suspicious of Willie's wild claims that Harry is badly injured. After Willie has Harry injected with drugs to help fool a high-powered posse of independent doctors trying to verify the extent of his injuries, a team of private investigators led by the gruff Purkey (Cliff Osmond) is hired to maintain round-the-clock surveillance of Harry. But the real victim is Boom Boom, who genuinely believes that he caused Harry a grave injury, and is consumed by guilt that affects his career and his life.

Director Billy Wilder co-wrote The Fortune Cookie script with I.A.L. Diamond, and he delivers an efficient comedy filled with dry one-line zingers, most delivered by Matthau. The prototypical ambulance chasing sleazoid lawyer who has proudly earned the title "Whiplash" Willie, to his own noisy kids he deadpans "why don't you kids go play on the freeway." And to pacify Harry's perpetually hysterical mother, he comes up with  "Every week you read in Time Magazine how they're transplanting kidneys and making new spines out of fiberglass. Don't you think the doctors read that stuff, too?" 

With Lemmon's Harry Hinkle character being almost too easy for Willie to manipulate, Matthau thrives on sparring with the three stuffy partners at the insurance legal firm, and meets his match in the character of Purkey, a private detective as dour and dogged as they come. The endurance battle between Willie and Purkey will decide the outcome of the fake injury lawsuit.

Matthau suffered a heart attack during filming, keeping him away from the set for five months. Wilder filmed around him while awaiting his return, and then had to conceal the substantial weight loss that his actor had suffered. For his troubles, Matthau earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, although his role is arguably more co-leading rather than supporting.

Lemmon is steady in another typical Lemmon role, Harry Hinkle a relatively simple man sucked up into events much bigger than he can handle, and finding himself at the unintended centre of a growing maelstrom. Harry's enduring starry eyed love for Sandy is the blatant soft spot that Willie exploits to full advantage to launch his scheme, and Lemmon is perfect in portraying a man still hopelessly in love with a woman who long since abandoned him.

The Fortune Cookie is filmed in stark blacks and whites, Wilder portraying a world where Willie's character can call white as black and convince all who matter that he is right. A lot of the action is centred on Harry's apartment, as his world shrinks due to his phoney confinement in a wheelchair. With the smaller surroundings come larger problems, as Harry's emotional stresses multiply: he is unable to cope with Willie's deception, remains unsure about Sandy's intentions, and is devastated by Boom Boom's guilt.

The Fortune Cookie is a sweet and crunchy comedy, and can claim credit for being the first to discover the joy of mixing two key ingredients: a squeeze of Lemmon with a pinch of Matthau.

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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Movie Review: How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)

With three beautiful but broke women desperate to snag ultra rich husbands, How To Marry A Millionaire finds all the right kinds of comedic trouble. Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall are the devious but frantic instigators of the husband hunting game, and ultimately face the farcical consequences when the best laid plans go awry.

Schatze (Bacall) is a fashion model, Pola (Monroe) is a stunning blonde but blind as a bat without her glasses, and Loco (Grable) is true to her name and just a little nutty. Together they are close to penniless, but nevertheless they rent a swanky furnished New York apartment, pretending to be wealthy to attract rich men. The apartment actually belongs to Freddie (David Wayne), who is apparently on the run to avoid tax evasion charges. The three women survive by gradually selling off the apartment furniture, but the days pass without any of them finding suitably rich husbands. Schatze repeatedly fends off the advances of the persistent Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) because she believes him to be a gas jockey.

But the ladies finally strike it lucky when they are invited to a cocktail party for out-of-town oil tycoons. Schatze is soon enjoying the company of the gentlemanly but much older J.D. Hanley (William Powell), Loco is accompanying a two-timing businessman to a lodge in Maine where she contracts the measles but also meets the hunky Eben (Rory Calhoun), and Pola falls for a one-eyed man who may be only pretending to be extremely wealthy. Although everything looks promising, nothing will proceed as anticipated on the way to finding the right match.

A mix of comedy, romance, and some farce, How To Marry A Millionaire is bright, cheerful, colourful and breezy. The trio of Bacall, Monroe, and Grable keep the screen filled with bubbling estrogen, and the three actresses quickly establish memorable and distinct characters.

Bacall's Schatze holds the group together and appears the most mature, but she is catastrophically error-prone in her assessment of men's qualities. Monroe goes to town as Pola in a role full of understated comedy. Pola refuses to wear her glasses, believing that they make her look ugly, and as a result Monroe gets to walk slowly into walls and carries on conversations with people she does not recognize. Monroe demonstrates excellent timing and self-control, Pola fighting against herself to place beauty ahead of elegance and basic functionality.

Loco is perhaps none too bight but has an uncanny talent to pick up men while shopping, getting them to pay for whatever she was buying, and then bringing them home for a look-over by Schatze and Pola. Grable mixes adorable naivete with a lust for riches, a combination that misfires with a spectacular bang when she meets Eben and his trees in the wilderness of a Maine park.

How To Marry A Millionaire was the first film shot in CinemaScope. Director Jean Negulesco demonstrates the breadth of all that the technology has to offer, the movie opening with wide-screen shots of the 20th Century Fox Orchestra performing Street Scene, followed by a sparkling montage of New York landmarks. Negulesco then keeps his ladies bathed in glamour regardless of their declining financial fortunes. The Nunnally Johnson script even finds its way to a private fashion show scene with Schatze, Pola and Loco among a bevy of beauties modelling for Tom Brookman as he insists on a private showing of the latest fashions simply to get close to Schatze.

How To Marry A Millionaire is of course useless as a how-to guide, but rather than helping to find millionaire husbands, the film offers priceless fun.

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Sunday, 25 November 2012

Movie Review: Strangers On A Train (1951)

A suspense drama exploring the damage that one psychopath can unleash on the lives of many, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train builds nicely into a little storm of turmoil. But the plot of evil most crazed eventually runs out of steam, and settles for meandering down the path of relative ordinariness.

While on a train ride, famous tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a talkative stranger who insists on sidling up to Guy and eventually invites him to dinner. As they chat, Bruno reveals that he hates his strict father, and also demonstrates his knowledge of Guy's personal life, as chronicled in the society pages: Guy is divorcing his abrasive wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) in order to marry Anne (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a wealthy senator.

Bruno progresses from annoying to creepy when he suggests that the two can commit the perfect murders: Bruno would be willing to kill Guy's wife to speed up Guy's marriage plans if in return Guy would kill Bruno's father. With neither man having a motive or knowledge of the victim, Bruno reasons that they would both get away with murder. Guy dismisses Bruno's plan as rubbish talk, but Bruno goes ahead and actually kills Miriam by strangling her at an amusement park. Guy is horrified, and has no intention of killing Bruno's father, but Bruno insists that Guy hold up his part of the supposed deal, and starts to stalk Guy and Anne, turning their lives into a nightmare.

Strangers On A Train enjoys an excellent first half. The pivotal encounter on the train opens the movie and is gratifyingly uncomfortable. Hitchcock increases the level of peril facing Guy in small but steady increments, as the train interaction is followed by an ugly confrontation with Miriam, pregnant with the child of another man and changing her mind about the divorce for pure financial gain. Bruno unleashing his murderous madness on Miriam is handled with sharp accuracy, the monster within finally revealing his worst tendencies.

The second half levels off in terms of the suspense, with Bruno publicly and loudly intruding into Guy's life and therefore compromising the entire premise of the two being strangers. The side-bar of two police officers visibly tailing Guy's every move to try and solve Miriam's murder never gains traction and does not meaningfully contribute to the plot.

But the ending is where Strangers On A Train simply runs out of ideas, Bruno unconvincingly taking forever to execute his unimaginative revenge on the non-compliant Guy, while Guy participates in an interminable tennis match. The climax on an out-of-control fairground carousel ride descends into a frantic punch-up and a rushed denouement.

Robert Walker delivers the best performance, his Bruno a study of a man far into abnormal territory, and equally far from recognizing it. His distinguished appearance and initially smooth social manners mean that he can easily conceal his condition, making him even more formidable. Walker allows Bruno's menace to shine through scheming eyes, a tight smile, and mannerisms that land just on the wrong side of excessively friendly. The troubled Walker died at age 32, just two months after Strangers On a Train was released.

Farley Granger is adequate as Guy, although he does not bring much that is special to the role. There are no opportunities in the script (co-written by Raymond Chandler) for Guy to demonstrate how he won the affections of Anne, or to delve into the character of a top-level tennis athlete.

If Rope (1948) was a study of arrogance attempting to perform the perfect murder, Strangers On A Train finds a mentally troubled mind equally trying to connive towards a brilliant crime. Rope is the intellect thinking itself into false invincibility; Strangers On A Train is the intellect twisted by derangement into depraved instability. Both are examples of Hitchcock's devious ability to create worryingly unavoidable encounters with men who are seemingly normal yet full of ill intent.

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Saturday, 24 November 2012

Movie Review: Operation Crossbow (1965)

A World War Two action movie centred on the development of the German rocket program and the Allied attempts to disrupt it, Operation Crossbow gets lost in Sophia Loren's expansive almond eyes and George Peppard's unconvincing antics. There are some good moments in the fictionalization of the strategic and scientific calculations behind the war over rocket technology, but the movie awkwardly oscillates between flight altitudes and ultimately lands a bit short.

As Winston Churchill (Patrick Wymark) tasks his minister Duncan Sandys (Richard Johnson) with uncovering and disrupting the German rocket program, German scientists are attempting to finalize the design of a ramp-launched rocket bomb. Due to a design fault, the auto-pilot system cannot control the flight path, and the lives of several pilots are sacrificed before ace flyer Hannah Reitsch (Barbara Rütting) is able to pin-point the fault and the design is perfected. Although Sandys and his team eventually locate the German test sites, the British bombing raid is too late: rocket bombs soon start raining down on London.

With aerial surveillance suggesting that the Germans are developing an even more powerful rocket, Sandys recruits multilingual agents with scientific backgrounds to infiltrate the ranks of German engineers. Curtis (Peppard), Henshaw (Tom Courtenay) and Bradley (Jeremy Kemp) are selected for the mission and assume the identities of supposedly dead German and Dutch engineers. But a muddle ensues after the men are dropped behind enemy lines. Henshaw is picked up by the police and Curtis tangles with Nora (Loren), the wife of the man he is impersonating. Curtis and Bradley eventually make it into the rocket factory. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, they have to find a way to stop the rocket development program before a devastating weapon, termed the "New York" rocket due to its range, is perfected.

Operation Crossbow gets off to a bright start, exploring the war rooms of an England desperate to uncover German military secrets while Germany is working hard to maintain a technological edge. Having the Germans speak in German is always a plus, and the film tantalizes by revealing weaknesses on both sides. The English are distracted by a pompous Professor Lindemann (Trevor Howard), who refuses to believe that the Germans can be anywhere near developing a functional rocket. Meanwhile, the Germans are struggling to identify and rectify a design flaw that is hampering progress.

But then Operation Crossbow loses its way. The middle third of the movie slips into an almost comically miserable sequence of musical hotel rooms, Curtis and Henshaw trying to avoid capture while Sophia Loren drops in for a ridiculously under-written role. Producer Carlo Ponti secured a few scenes for Loren and gave her top billing for what amounts to a glorified cameo, all in the interest of improved marketing potential. In their scenes together, neither Peppard nor Loren appear to actually know why they are there, and instead of generating sparks, Loren's presence dissolves into embarrassment.

The movie's climax at the secret German rocket facility reclaims some balance, but without finding either unusual intensity or bold realism. Peppard's performance is simply too shallow and underdeveloped to be convincing, as he is caught in the gap between a James Bond-type cocky light-heartedness and the required authenticity of a World War Two narrative inspired by real events.

The supporting cast is a who's who of British and European character actors, the likes of Trevor Howard, John Mills, Anthony Quayle and Paul Henreid lending their authority to the minor roles. Director Michael Anderson enjoys the big explosions, but does little to develop the characters beyond the most basic profiling.

Never entirely fizzling but also never quite soaring, Operation Crossbow flies in the right general direction but lacks the grace needed to accurately deliver its payload.

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Movie Review: Skyfall (2012)

The 23rd James Bond movie on the 50th anniversary of the franchise is a personal affair. Skyfall brings the drama and danger close to home for both Bond and M. While the more intimate tensions are welcome, the plot insists on discordant evil excesses that side swipe the intended impact.

After a brutal chase in Istanbul, Bond (Daniel Craig) and fellow-agent Eve (Naomie Harris) fail to retrieve a digital file stolen by the mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) containing the identities of all undercover MI6 agents. Eve accidentally shoots Bond and he is believed to be dead.  M (Judi Dench) starts to receive cryptic warnings hinting that the file theft is an act of revenge against her, and the MI6 headquarters in London is bombed. With British agents around the world being slaughtered after their identities are revealed on-line, M faces unprecedented scrutiny for the security lapse, with Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, demanding her resignation.

Bond re-emerges after a period of recuperation and hunts down Patrice in Shanghai. He then traces the clues to Patrice's employer to Macao, where he meets and seduces the glamorously dark Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe). She leads him to an abandoned island city, where Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the theft of the file. A once highly regarded MI6 agent from decades past, Silva was abandoned by M when he fell into Chinese hands, and his attempt at suicide to escape torture by swallowing a cyanide capsule only caused him horrific disfigurement. Now seemingly captured by Bond and brought back to London, Silva's revenge has only just begun: he has an elaborate plan to personally go after M in the heart of England.

With most of the frantic chase scenes taking place in the pre-credit sequence, Skyfall settles down to an action-oriented revenge story line. With the key moments mostly taking place in Britain, director Sam Mendes repatriates the series to its comfy home fires. The plot revolves around M's past coming back to haunt her, Bond returning to his family roots, and both facing down an enemy who, rather than seeking world domination or untold wealth, just wants revenge of the most personal kind.

The focus on a more snug plot is welcome. But the execution in the film's second half betrays both the spirit and the intent. Silva suddenly has access to a small army of men and sophisticated equipment, breaking out of his confinement and going after M with resources that would make many small countries proud.

The second disappointment in Skyfall is the over-involvement of M's character in the dirty work of espionage at the front lines. This has been a creeping tendency in the series to capitalize on Judi Dench's appeal, but in Skyfall the screenplay (by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan) loses most of its credibility by intentionally placing M in harm's way as part of an ill-conceived trap mission. In a film purposefully designed to be less outlandish, dropping the head of intelligence as bait for a crazed criminal is most incongruous.

The performances, however, are excellent. Daniel Craig, now well-settled as Bond, brings a resigned world weariness to the role. Instead of a search for glamour and cheerfulness, Craig portrays an agent disgusted by all aspects of the world and under no illusions that he is one rat among many, assigned to simply find and kill other rats. M needs to carry the weight of a furious nation on her shoulders, and Dench's most prominent Bond role is also her most nuanced, maintaining a steely resolve while fending off politicians and staring down a furious ghost from her past.

A bleached blond Javier Bardem as Silva is one of the more memorable Bond villains, a chilling mess of derangement, internal damage and self-conflict. Bérénice Lim Marlohe could have been a deliciously complex emotional mess, but her character is sketched in quickly and just as hurriedly sketched out. Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw (as a young and tech-savvy Q) portray characters who will return in future episodes, while Albert Finney makes a welcome appearance as Kincaid, a curmudgeonly but resourceful gamekeeper from Bond's past.

Mendes infuses Skyfall with an invigorating visual style emphasizing silhouettes, shadows and dancing lights, while the editing of the action sequences errs only slightly on the side of excessive sharpness. Bond may be 50, but amidst his unavoidably preposterous adventures he remains a nimble entertainer, not just stirring but shaking the action.

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Monday, 19 November 2012

Movie Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

A romantic comedy bundled into a road movie, It Happened One Night sparkles with wit, two transcendent performances, and an early harbinger of women's charge towards independence.

Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is at war with her wealthy father Alexander (Walter Connolly), who is holding her prisoner on a yacht. Although she has eloped with her lover King Westley (Jameson Thomas), Alexander refuses to acknowledge the marriage and is looking to have it annulled. Fed up, Ellie makes her escape by jumping off the boat, swimming ashore, and boarding a bus headed to New York, where she hopes Westley is waiting.

Also on the bus is resourceful but independent-minded journalist Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Peter and Ellie end up sitting on the same bench and quickly irritate each other. As the bus lurches from stop to stop and detectives hired by Alexander crawl across the landscape looking for the runaway heiress, Peter realizes that his travel companion is the scoop of his life. He helps her avoid detection by pretending that they are a couple, sharing a hotel room and hitch-hiking together when the bus starts to attract too much attention. Although Peter is initially just seeking the big story and Ellie just wants to get to New York, they are gradually and unmistakeably drawn to each other.

A breezy comedy, a likable romance, an unexpected commercial hit, and a huge boost to the careers of Gable, Colbert and director Frank Capra, It Happened One Night was the first movie to win the five major Academy Awards for Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay. It held that unique distinction until One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975) matched the achievement.

The movie crackles with sharp dialogue exchanges and an undercurrent of cute lust. The hitch hiking scene, with Ellie lifting her skirt to stop a car, and Peter hanging a blanket to split the hotel room in half and provide Ellie with privacy, are both legendary movie moments instantly associated with It Happened One Night. Other magical scenes include Ellie and Peter bickering like an old married couple to throw off the snooping detectives, and Alexander attempting to talk his daughter out of properly marrying King Westley while walking her down the aisle.

The romance between Ellie and Peter rings true because neither of them undergo a sudden, dubious transformation. Both remain faithful to their characters, with Peter gruff and impatient to the end, and Ellie never losing her sense of entitlement and whiff of snobbishness despite her growing dependence on Peter. Gable and Colbert bring the pair together with a chemistry the builds from a mixture of mutual stubbornness and matched determination.

Gable plays Peter as strictly unimpressed with Ellie and her class, yet finds within the corners of his ink-stained reporter habits enough sensitivity to help a woman alone in the rough and tumble world of real people. But Peter is always doubling down on his macho credentials, and legend has it that the sale of men's undershirts tanked irreversibly when Gable took off his shirt to reveal a bare torso.

When Colbert jumps off her father's yacht and into the water, her Ellie takes a stand for women who refuse to have their destinies determined by men. And throughout the journey, Colbert gives as good as she takes from Gable, Ellie never bowing to his badgering, and reasserting her independence at every opportunity despite occasionally floundering in the strange environment of the common people, where the bus schedule is not even adjusted to meet her needs.

Capra makes sure that for all the coldness of a trip centred on an inhospitable bus ride, the heart of It Happened One Night beats warm, the two characters generating first sparks and then heat as they throw their destinies together for better or for worse. Many romantic comedies have followed in the footsteps of It Happened One Night, but few have matched its hearty celebration of unlikely love flourishing on an accidental journey.

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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Movie Review: Passage To Marseille (1944)

Passage To Marseille is a heartfelt salute to the men and women of France fighting under the Free French banner against the Nazis during World War Two. The movie engages with a unique and courageous flashback within a flashback within a flashback technique to essentially recount four linked stories. The film's style and structure prevent any of the chapters from being totally absorbing, but there is enough going on with the dedicated cast to maintain momentum, both backwards and forwards.

The main story is set at a camouflaged military air base in the English countryside, where Captain Freycinet (Claude Rains) oversees a Free French bomber squadron flying night missions to hit German targets. Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart) is a machine gunners on one of the bombers, and on the return flights he drops steel tubes containing messages to his wife and son, who live under occupation in the French countryside. Freycinet recounts Matrac's story to a visiting journalist.

In the first flashback, Freycinet is sailing on-board the Ville de Nancy, a small French merchant boat heading from Central America to Marseille, with the war just having started. Also on board is pompous French veteran Major Duval (Sydney Greenstreet), who wrongly believes that the Maginot line will stop any German attack on France. On the journey, the Ville de Nancy picks up five men spotted drifting on a ramshackle raft, including Matrac, Marius (Peter Lorre) and Petit (George Tobias).

They rescued men initially claim to be miners from Venezuela, but Duval suspects that they are convicts, and he is right. In a story told through the second flashback, the five men eventually admit to Freycinet that they are escapees from the notorious French Guiana penal colony. Despite being convicted prisoners deported for life, they wish to return home and fight for France against the Germans, and are helped by a patriotic old timer to plan and execute their escape from the unforgiving jungle colony.

As the escape from French Guiana is unfolding, the third flashback reveals Matrac's pre-war background: he was an anti-establishment journalist writing for a small newspaper, highly critical of French politicians trying to appease Hitler. With the authorities wanting him silenced, he is framed and convicted of a murder that he did not commit. Before his capture, he marries his sweetheart Paula (Michele Morgan), the woman who now receives the messages he drops from the sky.

Passage To Marseille does suffer from an uncharacteristically disinterested Bogart performance, and the movie does not even try to explain his lack of an attempt at a French accent. The romantic sub-plot between Matrac and Paula is sincere and well-intentioned, but is free of tension and occupies a limited amount of screen time, robbing Bogart of the relationship spark that he so effectively translates into rich drama in many of his best movies.

But Passage To Marseille is an otherwise powerful World War Two film. Produced when France was still under the Nazi boot, the story is a reminder that many Frenchmen kept up the fight and did not give up on securing freedom for their country. While the internal French resistance network has often been celebrated, French soldiers who fought a more traditional war with the Allied armies have featured less frequently on film.

The four stories are compact, and the transitions between them are handled seamlessly. Director Michael Curtiz keeps the time shifts linear, moving one step at a time sequentially backwards and then again forwards, the rational progression between timelines effective in maintaining coherence. The segment on the Ville de Nancy emerges as the core of the movie, bringing together all sides of France.

While Matrac and his fellow escapees are risking everything to take the fight to the Germans, Major Duval represents both the clueless officers underestimating the enemy and then the surrenderists all too quick to align themselves with the puppet Vichy government. When shooting erupts on the boat and a German fighter plane attacks, Matrac shows no mercy, in a scene deleted from some earlier versions of the film for its rather astonishing but honest brutality.

The reconvening of Curtiz, Bogart, Rains, Lorre and Greenstreet, as well as the use of flashbacks, forces a mention of Casablanca, but Passage To Marseille is a different kind of film, grittier, less romantic, and more concerned with the mechanics of war and the motivations of the men who decide to fight. Rather than the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Passage To Marseille is about the fierce patriotism most needed in the days of darkest oppression.

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Movie Review: Zorba The Greek (1964)

A simmering pot of human hopes and disappointments in a rural Greek village, Zorba The Greek boasts a larger than life Anthony Quinn performance and an evocative Mikis Theodorakis score. The seemingly small story, based on the 1952 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, is about four different people unexpectedly connected through circumstance, but it succeeds in reflecting wide-ranging emotions about the eternal human experience.

Upon the death of his father, Basil (Alan Bates), a reserved English writer with some Greek lineage, decides to relocate to a Greek village on the island of Crete to reactivate a long dormant mine that has been in the family for generations. Before setting sail from mainland Greece to Crete, Basil meets Zorba (Quinn), a gregarious and gruff Greek man with a love for life as a grand adventure. Zorba sells himself as an expert miner, and Basil agrees to take him along to help restart mining operations.

At the remote village, hotel keeper Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova) lives a melancholy life lamenting her many previous loves, while the mysterious Widow (Irene Papas) appears hypnotic but draws threatening stares from other villages. Due to the rotten wood supporting the tunnels, Basil and Zorba quickly run into trouble trying to reactivate the old mine, and Zorba identifies the need to cut down a large forest of trees from a nearby mountainside to gain a fresh supply of timber. As Madame Hortense dares to imagine an idyllic future with Zorba, Basil finds the courage to make an advance on the Widow, but both relationships head towards unintended resolutions, while Zorba's ambitious plans to secure the timber supply hit a series of unexpected obstacles.

As much about individuals as it is about life, Zorba The Greek captures the essence of what it means to be alive. Inspired by actual miner George Zorbas who befriended Kazantzakis in the early 1900s, Zorba is clear about his approach: life is for living with a loud laugh, women are for loving with passion, resources are for exploiting, and if it all goes wrong, well, the journey is always much more important than the destination. He picks up the pieces and goes again. Quinn was born to play the role, and he fills the screen with the magnanimous persona of a resourceful man with endless passion to share.

If not exactly Zorba's antithesis, Basil is more careful, circumspect and cautious. Brave enough to relocate his life, to accept Zorba into his adventure, and ultimately to explore a relationship with the Widow, Basil is no wallflower. But he lives his life more quietly, more thoughtfully and with attempts at deliberate planning. Alan Bates gives Basil the necessary grounding in the face of Zorba's force of nature, as Basil represses frustration with the curiosity of a writer sensing opportunity in the unexpected chaos unleashed on his previously staid life.

Cypriot director Michael Cacoyannis, who also wrote the script and produced the movie, shepherds events along at a relaxed pace, allowing the characters to come to life through extended scenes that celebrate individual characteristics and all of life's rewards and surprises. The pacing is perfectly suited to the languid yet bright Theodorakis score, and allows the movie to breathe deeply from the rural air of the Greek countryside, Cacoyannis making the strange if not familiar then more understandable by the end of the luxurious 140 minutes of screen time.

Zorba The Greek does include a couple of difficult if not outright disturbing scenes, both involving the women in the lives of Basil and Zorba. The setting may be sometime in the early 1900s (this is never clarified in the movie), but the cold brutality that rural society is capable of is chilling in any context, and a reminder that civilization is not far removed from medieval roots.

That ultimately Basil and Zorba meet remarkably similar fates, both in romance and economic prospects, is no mistake. The movie ends with the spine-tingling "teach me to dance" sequence, the two men alone but together on the beach deep in the Greek countryside, realizing that although life's dance can be learned along many different paths, sometimes the destination is the same, no matter what route is chosen.

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Movie Review: Flight (2012)

A modern day tragic hero fable, Flight asks smart questions about heroism and personality flaws. Denzel Washington is admirable as the alcoholic pilot who miraculously lands a stricken plane, but Flight loses some thrust in a second half that circles the runaway a few too many times before landing.

William "Whip" Whitaker (Washington) is routinely consuming alcohol, and has never admitted to himself that he has a problem. Using cocaine to mask his drinking and carrying on a relationship with flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), Whip is divorced from a wife who had enough of his lies, and he has no meaningful contact with his teen-aged son. Despite being legally drunk, Whip takes control of a flight from Orlando to Atlanta and expertly navigates through severe turbulence. With the worst seemingly behind him, Whip consumes more alcohol during the flight. He is then startled when due to a catastrophic mechanical failure, he loses control of the plane at the start of the descent into Atlanta.

Clear headed and calm, Whip miraculously glides the plane upside down and crash-lands into an open field. Only six out of 102 passengers and crew die, with Katerina one of the fatalities after she helped to save the life of a child. Proclaimed in the press as a hero but with investigators crawling all over the causes of the crash, Whip knows that it's only a matter of time before his drinking is exposed, and he goes into hiding on his late father's farm. With lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) assigned by the pilot's union to help him, Whip starts a relationship with recovering drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), but even she finds it difficult to tolerate his out-of-control alcohol consumption.

Can a man simultaneously be a hero and a villain, and what fate does an alcoholic saviour deserve? The John Gatins screenplay briskly jumps to the point, Whip's harrowing disregard for his health competing with the terrifying plane crash in an exhilarating race to frame the moral dilemma. Director Robert Zemeckis delivers the crash sequence with plenty of adrenaline spilling from the overhead bins, as Flight quickly ascends at a steep angle, the opening 45 minutes rushing by in the jet-stream of Whip's ambivalence and the spectacular crash landing of a non-functioning aircraft.

In the remaining 75 minutes, the movie struggles at times to maintain cruising altitude. Whip's battle with the bottle, whereby he tries to stop drinking through sheer will power only to easily slip back to excessive consumption, stretches for too many scenes.

The relationship with Nicole is full of promise, with the two struggling addicts understandably drawn to each other, and the more determined Nicole fighting a seemingly losing battle in trying to pull Whip out of his alcoholic stupor. Frustratingly the potential for an earthy romance fades in and out of story without being fully explored.

Denzel Washington's performance is never less than first class, and he brings to painful life the internal struggle against denial faced by alcoholics, who first and foremost learn how best to lie to themselves.Washington allows Whip to be arrogant and self-assured in public, brooding and wracked by guilt in private, but never able to resist the next bottle of beer, no matter what is at stake.

Nicole is also an addict but a bit further along in her journey, willing to admit her dependency and seek help for it. Kelly Reilly brings to Nicole the vulnerability of the fragile healing process in a performance of building strength. Cheadle, John Goodman as Whip's colourful friend and drug supplier, Bruce Greenwood as a pilot union's representative and Melissa Leo as the lead crash investigator ensure a high level of quality in all the supporting roles.

Flight does have its moments of turbulence, but the star pilot delivers a stellar performance and the trip serves a meal full of hearty moral questions.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Monkey Business (1952)

A science farce trying to recreate the vibe of Bringing Up Baby (1938), Monkey Business finds Cary Grant reunited with Howard Hawks but neither the script nor the execution are sharp enough.  There are some good laughs scattered in the story about a monkey-made concoction that reverses ageing, but also quite a few clunky and awkward moments.

Research scientist Dr. Barnaby Fulton (Grant) is struggling to come up with a formula that reverses the ageing process. Barnaby is happily married to the supportive Edwina (Ginger Rogers), who tolerates with good humour her husband's absent-mindedness. Working with monkeys at the laboratory of a pharmaceutical company owned by industrialist Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn), Barnaby's latest formulation is going nowhere, but an escaped monkey randomly mixes the right ingredients, producing a powerful formula that rejuvenates youth. The monkey promptly dumps the mix into the lab's drinking water tank.

Barnaby is the first to unwittingly drink from the monkey's formula and temporarily reverts to the behaviour of a teenager, setting out on a wild adventure with Oxley's curvaceous secretary Lois (Marilyn Monroe). With Oxley dreaming of the riches that the formula will bring to his company but unable to have a rational conversation with the bewildered Barnaby, Edwina gets her turn to unexpectedly become young at heart, and her stint as a juvenile stresses the marriage to Barnaby as she revives memories of old boyfriend Hank Entwhistle (Hugh Marlowe).

With a monkey replacing a leopard, Hawks and Grant must have hoped that the mix of science, animals, and comedy that worked so well in Bringing Up Baby would click again. But the Monkey Business script, by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and I.A.L. Diamond, is lacking the necessary cutting edge. While the start of the movie sets up the premise with assurance, the story development sinks into general predictability as the cast members take turns acting like younger versions of themselves.

But it's in the final third that Monkey Business stumbles badly. An attempt to descend into farce spirals clumsily into cringe-inducing incompetence, as Edwina incomprehensibly mistakes a baby for Barnaby, while the real Barnaby is busy tying Hank to a tree and attempting to scalp him. It's as awful as it sounds, an embarrassing stretch of intended comedy veering wildly off target.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie is better. Grant's early scenes as the easily distracted scientist demonstrate his quirky charisma to good effect, and Rogers is excellent as the loving wife who understands and celebrates her husband's uniqueness. A pre-stardom Monroe as the secretary with no secretarial skills other than killer curves is unfortunately underutilized, but her scenes cavorting with a rejuvenated Barnaby hint at her irresistible screen presence and subtle comic timing.

Monkey Business proves true to its title animal: sometimes funny, but unfortunately also over-the-top and prone to causing unintended embarrassment.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Marilyn Monroe gets the outstanding dresses, Jane Russell gets the sharp lines, and together they create a memorable musical comedy experience. Gentleman Prefer Blondes may have the shallowest of concepts to play with, but this is a movie all about the glitz and glamour, never mind the intellect.

Lorelei: Excuse me, but what is the way to Europe, France?
Dorothy: Honey, France is IN Europe.
Lorelei: Well who said it wasn't?
Dorothy: Well... you wouldn't say you wanted to go to North America, Mexico.
Lorelei: If that's where I wanted to go, I would.

Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell) are glamorous showgirls and best friends, but with different tastes in men. Lorelei is singularly focused on wealth, equates money with happiness and wants to snag the richest man possible. She is engaged to Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), the somewhat spineless son of wealthy industrialist Esmond Sr. (Taylor Holmes). Dorothy is happy to have fun with men but believes in true love and will marry the right man for the right reasons regardless of the size of his wallet. Lorelei and Gus arrange to meet in Paris to get married, triggering a seaborne adventure with Lorelei and Dorothy crossing the Atlantic on a swanky boat filled with potential for romantic trouble.

Dorothy: Honey, did it ever occur to you that some people just don't care about money?
Lorelei: Please, we're talking serious here.

An American Olympic team is on-board, immediately distracting Dorothy, but Lorelei's attention turns to the very old - and very wealthy - and very married - diamond tycoon Sir Francis "Piggy" Beekman (Charles Coburn). Lady Beekman (Norma Varden) owns a diamond-encrusted tiara that Lorelei starts to crave, forgetting all about Gus. Unfortunately for Lorelei, Esmond Sr. believes that she is an opportunistic gold-digger unworthy of his son, and has hired private detective Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid) to spy on her for the duration of the journey. By the time the girls arrive in Paris, Lorelei's relationship with Gus is in trouble, Dorothy is falling in love with Ernie but has uncovered him to be an informer, and one tiara is missing.

Esmond Sr.: Have you got the nerve to tell me you don't want to marry my son for his money?
Lorelei: It's true.
Esmond Sr.: Then what do you want to marry him for?
Lorelei: I want to marry him for YOUR money.

Featuring several stand-out musical numbers including a Little Girl From Little Rock, Anyone Here For Love and Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes never takes itself seriously. Director Howard Hawks allows Monroe and Russell to look gorgeous and almost openly wink at the predicaments surrounding them, as the two ladies laugh at their lot, scheme to get their men, and navigate their way across the ocean and through a minefield of men with mixed intentions.

Lorelei: Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?
Esmond Sr.: Say, they told me you were stupid! You certainly don't seem stupid to me!
Lorelei: I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it.

Monroe, in one of the three star-making movies she made in 1953, wriggles, shakes, pouts and seduces her way to marriage, playing a dumb blonde who is only as dumb as she needs to be. The camera has no choice except to focus and stare at Monroe no matter what else is happening on the screen, and her slinky rendition of Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend in that luminous pink dress against a background of red walls and a wall of male suitors is one of Hollywood's legendary moments.

Dorothy: If we can't empty his pockets between us, then we're not worthy of the name Woman. 

Jane Russell is the sassy, more grounded yet also more idealistic and liberated brunette is the perfect partner for Monroe's antics. And while Monroe has the moves, Russell nails the deadpan delivery that allows Monroe's suspiciously smart dumb lines to land with the required bang.

Gentleman Prefer Blondes is an unashamed celebration of the mate hunting game from the perspective of women who know what they want, understand how to get it, and are determined to have loads of fun during the hunt.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

CD Review: So Far, So Good...So What!, by Megadeth (1988)

With Megadeth locked in a mighty struggle against the ravages of substance abuse, Jeff Young and Chuck Behler replace the fired Chris Poland and Gar Samuelsson on guitar and drums respectively. Through the fog of addictions and a poor, mucky mix, So Far, So Good...So What! is born as the band's third studio album, and surprisingly, it proves to be one of the band's strongest, most complete records.

So Far, So Good...So What! offers a consistency that is so often lacking on other Megadeth records, without compromising the frantic attitude that defines the band. Other than the unnecessary cover of Anarchy In The U.K., punk not translating well into thrash on this occasion, the album offers an outstanding collection of compact yet thoughtfully constructed thrash metal.

If there is one weakness that hounds the album, it's limited inspiration in song development. Dave Mustaine does not lack for ideas in defining principle themes, main hooks, and opening riffs that dominate and immediately engage. Nor does he lack courage in pushing all the tracks past four minutes in length and sometimes closer to six minutes. But on selections like Mary Jane and In My Darkest Hour, brilliant openings don't arrive at dramatically interesting destinations, and the front halves of the songs are betrayed by diminishing musical returns at the back ends.

But all the elements do come together on four of the eight tracks. Opener Into The Lungs Of Hell  is an instrumental that defines the essence of the Megadeth sound, a marching intro breaking into speed, more speed and an additional layer of maniacal speed as Mustaine just lets loose. Set The World Afire starts with the unforgettable I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire, all the way from The Ink Spots in 1941, before proceeding to do just that, starting with the whistle of an all-destructive incoming missile.

At the back end of the album, Liar floors the accelerator in a demonstration of guitar carnage at an inconceivable tempo and attitudinal snarl. But for pure jaw-dropping guitar sorcery, Mustaine saves the best for last, Hook In Mouth setting out with the sole purpose of shredding the soundscape into thin strips with a mammoth guitar assault. Hook In Mouth features what can only be described as soloing on steroids, Mustaine sweeping the fretboard with beady-eyed abandon and setting an impossible standard for future generations of guitar heroes.

So Far, So Good...So What! is brilliant and underrated, a somewhat lost thrash treasure filled with gems worth celebrating.


Dave Mustaine - Vocals, Guitars
Jeff Young - Guitars
David Ellefson - Bass
Chuck Behler - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Into The Lungs Of Hell - 10  *see below*
2. Set The World Afire - 9
3. Anarchy In The U.K. - 7
4. Mary Jane - 8
5. 502 - 7
6. In My Darkest Hour - 8
7. Liar - 9
8. Hook In Mouth - 10

Average: 8.50

Produced by Paul Lani and Dave Mustaine.
Engineered by Paul Lani. Mixed by Michael Wagener.
Mastered by Stephen Marcussen.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

CD Review: Burn, by Deep Purple (1974)

With the band on top of the world but torn apart by personality conflicts and claims of artistic fatigue, David Coverdale replaces Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes replaces Roger Glover (and, by sharing vocal duties with Coverdale, Hughes also replaces Gillan), and Deep Purple's Mark III line-up is born. And it immediately catches fire. Burn is filled with inspirational energy, and represents a strong return to form following the relatively uninspired Who Do We Think We Are (1973).

The dual vocalist experiment ultimately proved to be unconvincing and unnecessary. Although Coverdale and Hughes share vocal duties on every track except Mistreated, which Coverdale handles by himself, Coverdale's deep and bluesy voice is by far more powerful and more interesting, and he establishes himself as the defacto new voice of the band.

But never mind the vocals, Burn is a lot more about Ritchie Blackmore's guitar and Jon Lord's keyboards. The title track and album opener is one of Purple's masterpieces, a power hungry riff providing the structure for majestic guitar solos and lyrical interplay between Lord and Blackmore. Lay Down, Stay Down is an otherwise bland track elevated by a wizardly 60 second Blackmore solo that contains all sorts of DNA for the future of metal guitar magic. And on the bouncy What's Going On Here Blackmore and Lord create a classic tag team, taking turns embellishing an infectious rock and roll tune.

Mistreated is another of Deep Purple's all-time great tracks, Coverdale's proper debut into the big leagues, teaming with Blackmore to compare buckets full of tear and anguish. While Blackmore's guitar cries defiantly, Coverdale convincingly dredges up emotions from the bottom of the trampled hearts drawer.

40 percent of the band was turned over, but Deep Purple made a case that there is life yet in the new-look line-up. Burn simply sizzles.


Ritchie Blackmore - Guitar
David Coverdale - Lead Vocals
Glenn Hughes - Bass, Vocals
Jon Lord - Keyboards
Ian Paice - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Burn - 10 *see below*
2. Might Just Take Your Life - 7
3. Lay Down, Stay Down - 8
4. Sail Away - 7
5. You Fool No One - 8
6. What's Going On Here - 8
7. Mistreated - 10
8. "A" 200 - 7

Average: 8.13

Produced by Deep Purple.
Engineered by Martin Birch.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Movie Review: Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)

A World War Two naval thriller, Run Silent, Run Deep depicts the tension of submariners on a mission surviving in a narrow tube, hunting and being hunted by enemy vessels. The taut narrative introduces potent on-board human conflict to add to the external dangers, resulting in a well-rounded war drama.

Submarine Commander Richardson (Clark Gable) is consigned to a desk job for a year after losing a battle with the Japanese destroyer Akikaze in the dangerous waters known as the Bungo Straits. Desperate for a second chance, Richardson is eventually assigned to command the USS Nerka, in preference over Lieutenant Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster), who is popular with the Nerka's crew. Bledsoe accepts his role as support to Richardson and they set out in search of Japanese convoys.

As the sub makes its way to waters off Japan, Richardson has one thing in mind: a return engagement with the Akikaze. He makes himself unpopular by training the crew hard to improve the speed with which the Nerka dives and fires, with emphasis on perfecting the unconventional bow shot (hitting an enemy ship from the front instead of the side). He further frustrates his men by avoiding contact with an enemy sub as he steers to a singular purpose. But not all goes according to plan, as the Japanese navy has tricks of its own, and the Nerka is ambushed and suffers damage and casualties from a barrage of depth charges. With Bledsoe being egged by the crew to seize command from the increasingly isolated Richardson, the stricken Nerka is forced to confront the intimidating Akikaze and another, unexpected danger.

Loosely based on the novel of the same name by decorated submarine officer Edward Beach Jr., Run Silent, Run Deep offers a realistic view of pressure-filled survival in confined surroundings. The cast and crew trained with real submariners to capture the on-board language, actions and attitudes, and director Robert Wise's cameras work hard to portray the claustrophobic compartments that need to be called home by a large group of determined but often frightened men.

The special effects set a new standard for the era, with accomplished external shots of torpedoes firing, depth charges exploding around the submarine, and ships destroyed by torpedo hits. Wise cranks the tension up to a delicious maximum with some almost silent shots of the Nerka manoeuvring, sometimes unintentionally, close to the enemy, large vessels filled with men blind to their external surroundings except for the pings of sonar and the sound of a nearby engine.

Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable cruise through Run Silent, Run Deep with the sleek efficiency of a torpedo streaking to its target. While Gable, at 56 years old, may be a bit old for the role, he unleashes the experience of a single-minded veteran. His Commander Richardson is willing to exert uncompromised authority and incur the wrath of the young crew in pursuit of a weighty military prize that happens to meet his personal revenge goals.

The story's dramatic turning points balance on the shoulders of Lancaster's Bledsoe, a man who knows that his role has been unfairly usurped by Richardson but who nevertheless has to support his commander while keeping the crew loyal. Bledsoe has to interpret Richardson's arcane behaviour to the crew, and most interestingly finds out how easy it is to misinterpret the mood of the men when the decision has to be made whether the stricken sub should return to Pearl Harbour or carry on the fight.

Jack Warden and Don Rickles, in his big screen debut, are among the men sweating it out in the bowels of the submarine, living and dying according to the commands of their leaders.

Run Silent, Run Deep also runs straight and true, and hits its targets dead centre.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Movie Review: Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)

A tense thriller set after World War Two but otherwise containing all the elements of a Western, Bad Day At Black Rock is a small movie with a long reach. An excellent cast extends to the minor roles, and the ethos of a mysterious stranger arriving unannounced in a small town harbouring a dark secret would continue to resonate for decades in the hands of the likes of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.

John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives by train to the small town of Black Rock in the middle of the desert. A one-armed World War Two veteran dressed in a black suit and black hat, Macreedy immediately makes himself unpopular with the suspicious locals by asking for directions to the home of a local man named Komoko. Hotel clerk Pete (John Ericson) is unwelcoming, while roughnecks Coley (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector (Lee Marvin) try to intimidate Macreedy and run him out of town.

Undeterred, Macreedy seeks out the local Sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), but finds him to be useless. Meanwhile the town veterinarian Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) and Pete's sister Liz (Anne Francis) are slightly friendlier but still less than forthcoming. The unofficial town leader Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) pretends to befriend Macreedy while still urging him to leave, but gradually Macreedy uncovers Smith's central role in the dirty secret involving the missing Komoko.

Black Rock is a clutch of ramshackle buildings that time has forgot, and where the train stops reluctantly and only upon request. Director John Sturges therefore has a well-defined closed system to operate in, with Macreedy the single outside factor agitating the fragile alliance built by the locals to protect their secret. It's a simple but effective structure deployed in later examples by Leone in A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) and Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (1973).

CinemaScope may seem like an odd choice for a small film about a dirty town secret, but Sturges uses it to his advantage. The wide camera angles emphasize just how small and isolated Black Rock is, a town where horrible things can happen to good people and the rest of the world will be none the wiser.

Sturges maintains a taut compactness throughout Bad Day At Black Rock, with no wasted scenes to prolong the 81 minutes of running length. Characters are introduced quickly through the eyes of Macreedy, with quick interactions sharply defining each local's position in the town's hierarchy, from the spineless (the Sheriff) to the smoothly intimidating (Smith).

Spencer Tracy creates an unforgettable character in John Macreedy. Unflappable in black under the scorching sun and not allowing his handicap to slow down his martial arts skills, Macreedy personifies coolness and always appears to be several steps ahead of the locals conspiring against him. Robert Ryan makes for a smooth villain, his smile concealing a cold master of puppets working hard to keep the town in line. Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin enjoy the roles of tough guys given the freedom to unleash brutality on the new guy.

Although easy to guess, the secret at the centre of Bad Day At Black Rock pokes away at the scar tissue surrounding the mistreatment of Americans of Japanese descent during the War, giving the movie a modern social message to go along with its Western stylistic elements. Tracy, in his mid-fifties, may be difficult to imagine as a just-returned active war duty veteran, but a town struggling with a dark past needs a mythical warrior for justice more than an ordinary man, and John Macreedy readily delivers the bitter but required medicine.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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